The Hidden Structure of Before Sunset



The “Before” trilogy is, in my opinion,
one of the greatest gifts of modern cinema. Three films, each separated by nine years,
that together tell a beautiful and brutal story of what love means as we progress through
life. All three films have an unusual form—comprised
almost exclusively of lengthy conversations between the two central characters, Jesse
and Celine Because of this unusual structure, I remember
being in film school and arguing that Before Sunset was a perfect example of a movie that
doesn’t have a Hollywood structure. Oh film school Michael, you young fool. Fortunately, as I’ve grown older and wiser,
I’ve realized that one of the reasons Before Sunset is so amazing is because it is so structured. So today, I want to break the film into five
acts and dissect each one to uncover the invisible structure that keeps eighty pages of conversation
engaging… …to look at how the script constructs and
then destroys each character’s facade… …and to examine how each moment is tied
to the central dramatic question. Let's take a look at one of my favorite films,
Before Sunset. First, let’s define what a story’s dramatic
question is. In his book Story, Robert McKee describes
it as a variation on the question ‘How will this turn out?’ writing: “Hunger for the answer to the Major Dramatic
Question grips the audience’s interest, holding it to the last act’s climax.” The dramatic question is the hook, the reason
we continue watching, and the engine that keeps Before Sunset engaging. Before Sunset opens on Jesse finishing the
last leg of his book tour. As he answers questions, it becomes clear
that he’s written the events of Before Sunrise into a book. This introduces the dramatic question of this
act—the same one the audience was left with at the end of Before Sunrise. “The book ends on an ambiguous note – we
don’t know. Do you think they get back together in six
months like they promised each other?” This introduces the dramatic question of this act, the same one the audience was left with at the end of Before Sunrise: Did Jesse and Celine get back together in
six months like they promised? Asking this question overtly but refusing
to answer it creates tension, which draws us in. “In the words of my grandfather, 'to answer that would take the piss outta the whole thing.'” To keep us engaged, the film slowly hints
at the answer, starting with the inciting incident. “Across the room, Celine emerges from behind
a row of books, where she’s been hiding and listening. “He takes a beat, still looking at Celine,
not sure what to do next." But simple curiosity about the answer to the dramatic question isn’t enough to keep the audience engaged. The substance of a story comes from characters
struggling to resist change. One way characters resist change is by trying
to maintain a facade— a persona they construct to hide the painful truth underneath. In the first act, Before Sunset hints at the
truths Jesse and Celine are hiding from. "I flew all the way over there. You blew the thing off. My life's been a big nosedive since then, but it's not a problem." – “No, you can't say that."
– "I'm kidding." Jesse suggests his life was ruined when she didn’t show up, but quickly dismisses it as a joke… “Reading something, knowing the character in the story is based on you, it’s both flattering and disturbing at the
same time.” “How is it disturbing?” “I don’t know. Just being part of someone’s
memory. Seeing myself through your eyes. How long did it take you to write it.” …and Celine suggests his vision of her was
disturbing, but immediately changes the subject. These are the truths the characters are afraid
of confronting, locked away behind their facades. But people and characters always resist changing
unless they are forced to, which is why the film introduces one final dramatic ingredient. “How long ‘till I have to go to the airport?” “You should leave at 7:30
at the very latest.” Jesse has a plane to catch, so now a ticking
clock looms over everything that comes afterward— there is pressure. So to recap: Act one establishes Jesse and
Celine’s facades, introduces a time constraint to pressure the characters, and asks a dramatic question— which by the end of the act has actually been answered. Celine and Jesse did not meet up nine years
ago, and haven’t spoken since. So our attention turns to a new dramatic question, the central dramatic question at the heart
of the entire film. Will Jesse and Celine get together this time? Now we’re ready for act two. To answer this dramatic question, we have to know if there is still even a romantic spark between them, so the second act is about
Jesse and Celine catching up. But how do you make fourteen pages of chit
chat about politics, their careers, and how they’ve aged engaging? The writers make sure that each conversation
topic eventually relates to the dramatic question. Disagreements allow for playful banter… "I realize that there are a lot of serious problems in the world." -"Okay. Thank you."
-"Okay?" "I mean, I don't even have one publish in the whole Asian market." "All right." …Celine’s story about living the U.S.
turns into a conversation about the differences between American men and French men… – "I guess they're not as, um…"
– "What?" "What's the word? Um… horny?" "They're not as horny." "All right, listen to me on this one. In that regard, I am proud to be an American." …And reflecting on how long it’s been
since they first met allows them to comment on how they each look. "Okay. Well? Voilà" "So?" “…you look beautiful.” In other words, it always comes back to romance. These fourteen pages of conversation about
politics, their careers, and how they’ve aged, serve to demonstrate that Jesse and Celine
clearly still enjoy talking to each other and still find each other attractive. So with clear facades and the possibility
of Jesse and Celine getting together looking good, the film moves to act three, where everything
gets more complicated. When the audience’s relationship to the
dramatic question remains static, a story starts to drag, which is why it’s important
to complicate the dramatic question. In the first half of act three, Jesse and
Celine start overtly flirting with each other. "If we were both going to die
tonight, would we talk about your book, the environment, or…" "I would still want to talk about magic in the universe. – I'd just want to do it from a…"
– "What? "A hotel room, you know, in between sessions of us wildly fucking until we die." “Wow. Well, why waste time with a hotel room? Why not do it right there on a bench?" “He immediately grabs her and pulls over
to a bench. …as she is suddenly
overcome with shyness.” “Well, we’re not going to die tonight.” “All right. Too bad.” “She repositions herself on the bench next
to him.” It seems like they’re both interested in
reconnecting, like we’re moments away from getting the fairytale answer to the dramatic question… So it’s the perfect time for the screenwriters
to have Celine casually bring up the one topic the've been avoiding. “So I read in that article you are married
with a kid? That’s great.” “A slightly weird look from Jesse: ‘knew
this was coming, eventually.’” This is the film’s midpoint, the reveal of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that re-contextualizes the entire film thus far
and complicates the dramatic question. What would it mean for Jesse and Celine to
get together now? Do we even still want that? Now that the dramatic question has been complicated, the film uses conflict to complicate the characters as well. Jesse and Celine are each other’s opponents, so part of their function in the story is to erode the other’s facade by attacking the lie they project. Jesse’s lie is that “love is simply a
choice.” “So you got married because men you admire were married?” "In the moment, I remember thinking that it didn't much matter, the who of it all. That nobody is going to be everything to you. and that ultimately, it's just the simple action of committing yourself, meeting your responsibilities that — that matters." But spending time with Celine has been revealing
the importance of connection, which is wearing on Jesse’s facade. “Jesse then speaks in a voice that is both
louder and more frustrated and desperate than we’ve seen.” “Oh God, why weren’t you there in Vienna?!” "I told you why." "I know why. I just… I wish you would have been. Our lives might have been so much different." As his own facade cracks, Jesse starts challenging
Celine’s lie— that “everything worked out for the best.” “Maybe not, maybe we would have hated each
other eventually.” "Oh what, like we hate each other now?" “Celine is a bit tense.” “Well the past is the past, it was meant
to be that way.” The struggle of the characters trying to hold onto their lies is what makes this section so gripping. By the end of the third act, it’s clear
that there are cracks in each character’s facade, but they are still holding on to their lies. So the story ratchets up the pressure. "Well, I guess this is good-bye. You better give me your—" "No, why don't we just give you a ride home, wherever you're going, huh?" “Well, I can take the Metro. I'm fine.” "No, no. My flight's not until 10:00. They've got me arriving two hours early." "This way we can keep talking." They are truly almost out of time, so they climb into the car…and enter the most explosive act of all …act four. Act four centers around Celine— who has been clinging to her facade more tightly than Jesse— as . she slowly unravels in a three-and-a-half
page cascade of emotion. It begins with Celine restating the lie she
is trying to believe. “For me, it’s better I don’t romanticize
things as much anymore. It doesn’t make me sad, it is the way
it is.” Jesse, acting as her opponent, calls her out. "Is that why you're in a relationship with someone who's never around?" … which forces her to admit she has problems
with romance now. “When someone is always around me I’m
suffocating.” But again, Jesse calls her out, forcing her
to acknowledge her contradiction. “Wait, you just said you need
to love and be loved.” “Yeah, but when I do, it quickly makes me
nauseous. It’s a disaster.” This snowballs into an emotional response that will finally force Celine to admit the truth she hinted at in act one. “I was fine until I read your fucking book. It reminded me how genuinely romantic I was,
how I had so much hope in things and now it's like I don’t believe in anything that relates to
love. I don’t feel things for people anymore. In a way I put all my romanticism
into that one night and I was never able to feel all this again.” Because the last thing characters want is
to reveal the truth, when it finally comes out it is often messy…even disastrous. "I've gotta get away from you." – Stop the car. I want to get out.”
– “No, no. Don't get out." "It's being around you — Don’t touch me! I want to get on a cab." This is the story’s crisis, the worst possible consequence of the inciting incident. Maybe we’re about to get the answer to the
dramatic question: not only do they not get together, but their reunion ends in a terrible fight. But, she stays, and after her facade is destroyed, Jesse is finally able to reveal the painful reality his life has become. “You think you are the one dying
inside? My life is 24/7 bad. And I know that there's something wrong that I — God, that I can't keep living like this, that there’s gotta be something more to love than commitment. But then I think that I might have given up on the whole idea of romantic love, that I might have put it to bed that day when you weren't there. You know, I think I might have done that." Finally, the truth is out: they both gave up on romance when they didn’t meet in Vienna nine years ago. Their souls are bared, their facades have
crumbled, and as they arrive at Celine’s apartment it’s finally time to answer the dramatic question: Will Jesse and Celine get together this time? By act five we understand how complicated
the dramatic question is, but now we also understand how complicated the characters are, and that this could be the second chance at love they both need. So as Jesse goes upstairs so Celine can play
him a song before he heads to the airport, there is a new kind of tension. “They start up the stairs, not saying anything,
but acting like everything is normal. As they continue in silence, the charged undertone
seems even more pronounced.” As they hang out in her apartment, we see what Jesse and Celine have earned by weathering the painful storm of exposing their truths and surrendering their facades. Their true selves are together for the first
time in nine years, and it’s clear with every moment this is where they want to be. “As the song keeps going, and Celine keeps
clowning around, Jesse just sits there with the most peaceful, happy grin we’ve ever seen on him.” But it’s not until the very last line of
the film that the dramatic question is finally answered. “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” “I know.” So, does Before Sunset have a conventional
Hollywood story structure? Well, if we take the big moments we’ve just
covered and overlay them onto the Syd Field paradigm structure— the three-act model used
in most Hollywood films— we see that they fit pretty snugly. The first section has an inciting incident… …there’s a first plot point as Jesse and
Celine start talking… …there’s a midpoint reversal that flips
the story on its head… …there’s a second plot point when Celine
wants to get out of the car and it looks like their relationship will end badly… …and there’s a third act climax as each
character makes the ultimate choice. So, in that respect, sorry film school Michael,
you were mistaken. Before Sunset does have a conventional Hollywood
structure. But in all honesty, you could take just about anything and force it to fit into this structure if you tried hard enough. Simply adhering to structure for its own sake
isn’t enough to make a movie good. Before Sunset is brilliant because it is a
beautifully-designed real-time conversation that organically takes its two characters
through a full arc, and the result of that is a structure so effortless it seems invisible. This is something that is hard to come by, and it’s what film school Michael was connecting . with. That the film feels so romantic and raw is really a signal of the immense effort and honesty that was poured into Before Sunset. So much of what makes the Before Trilogy great
is the power of conversation, and as I was working on this video I kept thinking about
my favorite book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens is a fascinating summary of humanity’s
evolution, and one of my favorite chapters is about the importance of language. He describes one theory, that “Our language evolved as a way of gossiping… It is not enough for individual men and women
to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know
who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.” Sapiens made me appreciate the true power
of conversation and so many other aspects of humanity, and you can download the audiobook
today for free with Audible. If you’re a regular viewer of Lessons from
the Screenplay, then you’ve probably heard me talk about how much I love Audible and that they have the largest selection of audiobooks on the planet, but through the month of July
there’s a special offer going on. Amazon Prime members can start an Audible
membership and save 66% on your first 3 months— it’s essentially like getting three months for
the price of one. Just head to audible.com/LFTS
or text LFTS to 500 500 to get started today. Thanks to Audible for sponsoring this video. Hey guys! Hope you enjoyed the video. There's so much to talk about with Before Sunset, which is why I'm very happy we have our podcast, "Beyond the Screenplay." Our episode on Before Sunset is out today. We do a deeper dive into that film as well as the entire "Before Trilogy." So check it out! The link to the episode is in the description below. Thank you, as always, to my patrons on Patreon and supporters here on YouTube for making this channel possible. Thanks for watching, and I'll see you next time.

46 thoughts on “The Hidden Structure of Before Sunset”

  1. Which film in the "Before Trilogy" is your favorite? Why?
    Before Sunset has been mine, but in revisiting them, I might be starting to lean toward Before Midnight.

  2. Before Sunrise is my favorite… such a beautiful film. Linklater, even at a young age, proved he was a remarkable talent

  3. Love the first movie, I watched the first time without knowing nothing about it and by the end it became one of my favorites movies ever, always dreamed about having that special night with someone in other country. Thanks for the awesome video as always Mike!

  4. That was excellent. I would've loved to see you talk about the other 2. Also, other TWO? I guess I missed the 3rd movie. Thanks for giving me something to look forward to

  5. The Only thing that bugs me with that movie is Celine's beauty, without it the movie wouldn't work, you cannot get any woman for that type of role, she is an object defined in very precise way

  6. Just can’t get enough of these tranquil, insightful and articulate analysis. They resurrect so much enjoyment from watching fine films such as the before series while laying things out in clear structure that’s often hidden under the complexity of visual story telling. Thank you for all the wonderful content you created. Also, after being reminded of this rather European flavoured trilogy, I wonder if you’d ever take on films like Les Trois Couleurs.

  7. I think that one point of the film is that the structure lays all in the conversation of the characters, while we are used to the structure laying predominantly in the actions of the characters

  8. This film “Before Sunset” always reminds me of “The Apartment”. Every dialogues in both film are so on point how those characters feels point to point. And the very last scene where core characters accept how the things are just so special to look at. Appreciate great episode. Can’t wait to check next one.

  9. Please make a video about creating character relationships that don’t feel rushed or unnatural! Love your content btw

  10. Oh my, thank you for analyzing Before Sunset. This film has been my favorite out of the trilogy because there’s this beautiful quality about reconnecting with lost love & who you used to be that makes it so poignant.
    However, Before Midnight has that painful fight scene that I must say is the best scene in the trilogy. It’s full of heartbreaks, resentment, & dread that you just feel suffocated watching.

  11. This seems like one of those lost in translation type movies where it's two hours of chit chat and nothing happens and only ppl who go to film school enjoy it. Seeing as I went to film school I'm going to watch and update my review. Lol

  12. Please do Sicario. The video is great! I love Before sunset. I understandd it alot better because of you

  13. Muchas gracias a la persona que traduce los subtítulos en español. Es genial poder ver los video análisis sobre escritura cinematográfica y poder entender para los que aun no entendemos inglés. Muchas gracias.

  14. This is amazing! Thank you so much. I’m a little confused however, as you talk about the three act structure but also refer 5 acts in this movie. Could you explain that a little to me? I know the 4 act structure is usual act 2 divided into 2 so I assume the 5 acts here will mean something similar. Thanks!!

  15. Before Sunset is my No.1 film. I think ambiguous ending was so perfect. I wish I would’ve never watched Before Midnight. It ruined my imagination of what I thought happened after Sunset.

  16. Ok, this statement of The Before Trilogy being one of the greatest gifts to modern cinema has officially made this channel my favorite for analysis of all kinds! I had my own Before Sunrise night and hope to have a Before Sunset as well.

  17. Oh film school Michael…. How much you've learned since then. For that I'm thankful for these videos. Another thoughtful video from you and your team.

  18. act4 — sublime, masterpiece … the reaching out at different times to each other w/o the counterpart noticing …. damn! I love this movie

  19. My favorite trilogy! Thanks for this. My only complaint is sometimes your subtitles don't match the dialogue 100% in your video.

  20. It's very interesting to see how each character read their lines, with Ethan Hawk improvising his more while Julie Delpy reads them very word for word most of the time.

  21. I was an arts journalist in college and was sent to review Before Sunrise. The previous film I had been sent to review was Money Train. I was tired of my assignments. Before Sunrise blew me away. It could have been because I was also roughly the same age as the characters. As the sequels have come out the life connection has been uncanny. Great, understated movies.

  22. I was literally on an Ethan Hawke interviews marathon these past few days – couldn't be more timely!! thank you good sir. <3

  23. Being that I'm the same age as the characters- this trilogy was maturing with me. When the first one came out I found it to be the romantic ideal. I was touting it as the most glorious vision of love I'd ever seen. When I heard Sunset was being released I simply couldn't believe it. And when it turned out to be the masterpiece it is… incredible! Theeen when Midnight came out when I was feeling many of the same trials of age and loss it was like a hammer blow of reality. I love and respect the finale but I must say I want to watch Sunset over and over. Sunrise is perfect in it's own right- but sunset has the added benefit of baggage to overcome. It adds necessary weight to the story that makes it far more engaging. Thank you Criterion for the fantastic release I was begging for for years!

  24. Excuse me Michael, what is the green "pistol" that the camera man held on his hand at the minute 15:02 ?????

    Love the channel, one of my favorites on youtube.

  25. So it's like a one shot act… whereas just like a one shot take there may be hidden cuts but it creates what appears to be one take, just as this film has multiple acts they seem to almost be seamless

  26. I loved the Before Trilogy. I watched it over 3 days, one movie a day and it was amazing but the last one was almost too real. I wonder if there'll be a fourth movie in 2022… then it wouldn't be a trilogy LOL Fantastic video!

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